China’s Dystopian Social Credit System Within Western Borders
Imagine a world where your every move, online and offline, gets monitored and scored by big companies and the government. This idea gets even more chilling when your online activities, behaviour, relationships and financial data ultimately determine whether you can travel by train, are accepted in certain schools, can obtain a better interest rate on your loans or not.
This dystopian plot for one of Black Mirror’s most well-known episode Nosedive is becoming reality in China. In 2014, the Chinese government introduced the plans for their Social Credit System (SCS) which, however frightening the thought of having a number allotted to each of the almost 1.4 billion occupants of the PRC, will develop from a currently voluntary basis of functioning into a mandatory scheme starting with 2020. According to the government, the system aims to enhance the “trustworthiness” of its citizens while creating a more “sincere” society (Creemers). Although this idea clashes with our Western mindset and values in every way, we are not far from a similar reality as we are already allowing apps to track our location, health, online behaviour and purchases.
To monitor one’s own behaviour and get some insight into which data the government (already) possesses of its citizens, we are introducing WIJ – an app through which a Credit System, similar to the SCS in China, could be implemented in The Netherlands. For this app to work, the laws concerning data, as well as the norms and values dominating the liberal Netherlands should be kept in mind. WIJ is our answer to the research question: “How could a system similar to China’s SCS be implemented in The Netherlands?”
Sci-Fi meets reality: China’s Social Credit System
Before creating a “Westernized” version of the controversial Credit System, the original model should be analyzed. Through minutious tracking, rating and ultimately ranking of both people and companies’ behavior alike, regardless of preferences or personal will, the “Sesame Credit” measures and grants individuals scores between 350 and 950 points, taking into account five factors: credit history, fulfilment capacity, personal characteristics, behavior and preference, and interpersonal relationships (Botsman). Behavior is not only investigated, according to Rachel Botsman, but shaped. Through the soon-implemented final version of the SCS, one’s online and offline presence merge into an “onlife”. “As our society increasingly becomes an inosphere, a mixture of physical and virtual experiences, we are acquiring an onlife personality – different from who we innately are in the “real world” alone” (Botsman).
It can be considered that China’s population is nudged “away from purchases and behaviors the government does not like” (Botsman). However, if done consistently and built on a base of fear and communist standardization of life as well as constraining free will behind the bars of political extremism, the credit system hinders a set of universal ethical values of human rights and privacy, essential for the development of a healthy, democratic but most importantly diverse society. The rewards are a very much real component of the system, therefore supporting the citizens who do not dare to divert from China’s strived-for “trustworthiness”. More generous deadlines, loans, traveling terms, a heightened social status or the chance at quality private education are the packaging in which constant surveillance is appealingly wrapped.
WeChat and our own Super-app
Tencent, a Chinese multinational investment conglomerate founded WeChat in 2011 as a mobile messaging app. The platform has 902 million users but its appeal lies in the fact that WeChat has developed the ability to add mini-apps through its in-app store. This, combined with several Chinese government-imposed laws and administrative regulations in order to restrict internet access to Western websites such as google.com and Facebook has created a situation where most of internet transactions and practices done from your phone are done through only several government approved applications. Since the governments’ censoring of Western social media sites (e.g. Facebook in 2009 and WhatsApp in 2017), a vacuum filled by government-backed companies such as Tencent appeared, further aiding the oversight and centralization of social media platforms in China (“Tencent Launches a Social Credit System Similar to Alibaba’s | Business News”).
For a quick introduction to China’s current implementation of the SCS, take a look at the video below:
WeChat emerged as a messaging app and slowly integrated different features into what is now called ‘a super-app’. Today, the app allows one to send mobile payments, make video calls, play games, hail taxis, share locations, look for restaurants and leave reviews, order services, pay electronic bills and much more. As shown in the video above, governmental authorities not only monitor internet access but also what people do online; it is an accepted reality that officials censor and monitor users. What is more frightening is that a few years ago, platforms such as WeChat and its competitor Alibaba received the green light from the government to test-drive social credit systems, all this with the intention of gathering data for the construction of a national integrated social credit system.
In the video above, Creemers illustrates that the problem of information dispersion among Chinese provinces can be solved by creating information sharing mechanisms through the Sesame Credit for the law to be more efficiently applied on a nationwide level. One of the most imperative issues with the Social Credit System is that, while consistently using algorithms to monitor and rank its recipients, these means of control and data collection do not take into account context. Therefore, we aim to find creative ways to “embrace nuances, inconsistencies and contradictions” – elements inherent in human beings (Botsman) – and the ways in which they hold the power of mirroring real life.
With our own “super-app” we wish to demonstrate how a clear and strong interconnection between all aspects of human life can be possible: social, political, private, educational, etc. which inevitably alters the natural course of life. “We are entering an age where an individual’s actions will be judged by standards they can’t control and where that judgement can’t be erased” (Botsman). In order for such a social credit system to take form in the Netherlands we must ensure a kind of transparency that allows citizens to trust the system and, as Botsman agreed, the unknowns need to be reduced alongside the opacity of algorithms upon which our app is designed. At the same time, we need to limit the probability of hacking and cyber crimes that could take place within the system.
Taking all these theories and developments into account, we created a design for the app WIJ. When installing the app, the user has to comply with the privacy agreement the app formulated which follows the EU and Dutch laws concerning privacy and data-gathering and distribution. The agreement specifies which data is gathered and how it is being utilized. WIJ aims to communicate this complicated process in understandable language in order to prevent that users just click and accept, a more than frequently occurring phenomenon (Yeung 125).
When opening the app, the user is required to log in with their DigiD, which stands for “digital identity” and is a mandatory ‘tool’ used to sign in on a governmental website (e.g. tax authority, benefits, study loans etc.). Additionally, a large number of health insurance companies have made DigiD available as a login option for their online platforms. Because the ‘digital identity’ is linked to the government, certain personal data such as complete name, address, loans and debts are automatically transferred into the app. When the login is successful, the user is directed to the main menu.
When visiting the main menu, a few options are available to the user: profile, score, finance, governmental, social, shopping, entertainment, settings, and app store. The latter allows the user to download other apps on their WIJ-account, such as their personal bank app, social media apps, investment apps and shopping apps. Below we display the design of the financial and governmental page of the app.
Above, the mockups for two of the menu options of the app are displayed. As can be seen in Fig. 3, the app allows the installation of external applications within itself. We used the ING-app (personal bank account) as an example, as well as the iDeal-app (an app that handles online transactions).
The Importance of WIJ
Through this app, the users can attend to various kinds of actions such as payments that need to be carried out (e.g. taxes, loans etc.) and keep track of their own score as well as their friends’. WIJ focuses on rewards in the form of discounts, free products, services or trips rather than relying on punishments, which makes it different from the SCS China is implementing. By nudging the users through incentives, WIJ aims to increase good behaviour amongst Dutch citizens, without using penalties as a threat. We believe that focusing on the positive consequences instead of the negative ones would result in a Western society being more accepting of such a system that keeps tabs on behaviour.
The past few years have shown that we look differently at the gathering and distribution of data: data has transformed from just a convenient insight in people’s or customers’ behaviour and preferences to a true merchandise for which companies are willing to pay large amounts of money. Rob Kitchin calls this a “data revolution” and connects it to the increase of domestic-, work-related and public use of mobile devices and technology (Kitchin 15). When living in an era where your own data has so much worth, it is important to be aware of which data is gathered and what is being done with it. Laws such as GDPR passed in 2016 only standardizes and sets rules concerning the transparency of the processing of personal data by commercial organizations and governments. It does not stipulate what can or cannot happen with your data. Another more worrying fact is that when pop-ups such as the GDPR compliance or cookies collection notices appear most people click yes by default in their impatient need to watch that cat video or read that sensational celebrity gossip. Most people do not know what they are agreeing to or how their data is further used.
Just as the WeChat, if our app becomes all-encompassing and ubiquitous, then there is no real possibility for you to disagree or not comply for that might affect your communication or data exchange with others. As McLuhan famously said “the medium is the message” (13) – it is not that our phones are our lives but that we experience life through our phones and that is the core of why people would adhere to apps like these. Removing yourself from the app means that you are no longer able to take part in that life.
“There is power in standardization”
By building such a powerful technological network at a national level, we are creating an infrastructure meant to bridge the knowledge gap between national authorities and the Dutch society. Considering the demographic and the environmental design (including the size) of the Netherlands, installing the system and WIJ, respectively, as a governmental practice of surveillance and control is more feasible and could render much more accurate results through a concentrated focus, more advanced technology and a higher accuracy of algorithms. Therefore, the app will be an infrastructure that will “make visible the invisible” (Mattern 16), bringing awareness to the citizens regarding the ubiquitous governmental power now exerted at every single level of one’s life.
“There is power in standardization,” Morozov (14) rightfully admits. The recently developed apps, games and technologies give a strong nod to the concept of “augmented reality” – “infusing our everyday environment with smart technologies” (20). Through the implementation of both the Social Credit System in China as well as WIJ in the Netherlands, life is gamified which determines a dependability between incentives and the human, moral behavior. Ruth Grant believed that “once they are removed, [the incentives’] effectiveness ends. Incentives treat symptoms, not causes; they are a superficial fix” (Grant in Morozov 208). The systems can be regarded as the solutionist approach of a government which aims to take full control of how its society is built and acts – gamification becomes the standardized means by which trust and general civic issues are solved, stripping, however, the idea of citizenship of much meaning, as Morozov admits (206). Citizens, through constant nudging, exerted power and data collection, are regarded or rather disregarded as consumers and players “who expect everything to be fun and based on reward schemes” (Morozov 205). The app can be fun for some, an unpleasant burden to keep track of, but once this is implemented and becomes part and parcel of one’s life, “there’s no going back”. “People’s expectations have been reset. This will be the new normal” (Morozov 205).
We are going to take the role of “choice architects” meant to steer the Dutch’s behavior towards a more uniform demeanor which can be easily categorized, rewarded or punished accordingly. However, there is an intriguing point in introducing such measures within the workings of a society. Citizens will engage in the “desired behavior” not because their actions will, at a certain point in time, mirror an immense civic spirit but because collecting points or unlocking different advantages or boosting their social position will be “more fun” (Morozov 206). As Rachel Botsman brilliantly stated,
“The new system reflects a cunning paradigm shift. As we’ve noted, instead of trying to enforce stability or conformity with a big stick and a good dose of top-down fear, the government is attempting to make obedience feel like gaming. It is a method of social control dressed up in some points-reward system. It’s gamified obedience.”
Discipline as Power
There is a reason why we find this kind of systems controversial and even dystopic. We have more than enough examples of state agencies or institutions misusing citizens’ data. As mentioned previously, laws are more than ambiguous when it comes to what can be done with big amounts of harvested data, leaving much of it to vague, yet menacing companies to decide how to profit from it. We are past any naive ideas of the state or giant corporations not misusing our data, particularly when such extensive amounts of it are involved.
Foucault argues in Meshes of Power that state power has changed from a disciplinary form to “individualization” (160). In the past, states (or monarchies) used to exert control by disciplinary means with often violent outcomes. However, this kind of discipline is not all-encompassing and is often difficult to enact because of the necessary physical presence of the violent tools of the state. Our new form of control exertion is compatible with capitalism and is, most of all, cost-effective. Individualization makes subjects incorporate state sanctioned norms and values into their behaviours. This way, people can control themselves, method which stands much more in line with governmentality and neoliberalism. In today’s world, power does not only lie centralized in the state, but spreads out into institutions and data mining as an effective tool of control exertion for those institutions.
Our first instinct is to think that such forms of control are incompatible with our liberal form of western democracy, but Foucault was not referring to socialist China when he spoke of bio-politics. The PRC wants to control its population by implementing a system that will change people’s behaviour and will ultimately mean that people will control themselves by incorporating the preferred norms and values into themselves and their lives. Effectively enacting this discipline without the constant overview of the state or its institutions, it may seem Orwellian to us to think that such a system could be implemented in the Netherlands, but the state already exerts this control over our lives, be it in the form of taxes, finances, housing or movement. With the infrastructures for such a system already in place, our app WIJ is a realistic step in the direction of a Western credit system.
Due to limited resources and time we were not able to take every aspect of the SCS into consideration. For further research, we recommend that the influence of the system be measured when it has been implemented and used for a longer period of time. Only then, one can get a complete image of what the implications are for the society, government and individuals.
ABC News (Australia). Exposing China’s Digital Dystopian Dictatorship | Foreign Correspondent. YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eViswN602_k. Accessed 1 Oct. 2018.
Alexandra Ma. “China has started ranking citizens with a creepy ‘social credit’ system — here’s what you can do wrong, and the embarrassing, demeaning ways they can punish you.” Business Insider, 8 Apr. 2018, http://www.businessinsider.com/china-social-credit-system-punishments-and-rewards-explained-2018-4. Accessed 12 Oct. 2018.
Botsman, Rachel. “Big Data Meets Big Brother as China Moves to Rate Its Citizens.” Wired UK, Oct. 2017, https://www.wired.co.uk/article/chinese-government-social-credit-score-privacy-invasion. Accessed 10 Oct. 2018.
Foucault, Michel. “The Meshes of Power.” Space, Knowledge and Power: Foucault and Geography, 2007, pp. 153–162.
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Mattern, Shannon. “Infrastructural Tourism.” Places Journal, July 2013. placesjournal.org, doi:10.22269/130701.
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. MIT Press, 1994.
Morozov, Evgeny. To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism. Public Affairs, 2013.
Niewenhuis, Lucas. “Tencent Launches a Social Credit System Similar to Alibaba’s | Business News.” SupChina, 31 Jan. 2018, https://supchina.com/2018/01/31/tencent-launches-social-credit-system-similar-alibabas/. Accessed 12 Oct. 2018.
SMC050. Demystifying China’s Social Credit System – Rogier Creemers – SMC050 July 2018. YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GsIdUGWsXn8. Accessed 10 Oct. 2018.
Yeung, Karen. “‘Hypernudge’: Big Data as a mode of regulation by design.” Information, Communication & Society, May 2016, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1369118X.2016.1186713.